Happy Brain

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This winter I got back into meditation through taking part in a 10 day Vipassana meditation course at their Texas center. I had been to my first course (and served a couple after that) in 2013 and felt like it was time to get back into it. I was looking for something to help my mind become happier, to stabilize my mind, to train it. I had positive benefits from the first course I took, but with time the practice had drifted away.

In this article I’m going to share some interesting scientific findings that recently came across my path, but they simply serve to bolster that which is already lived experience for me, namely the lived experience of becoming happier, more peaceful, loving and not as easily riled. It’s cool when science confirms lived experience, eh?

[image source]

Wild Elephant Trainer

Goenka, the man who brought Vipassana meditation to the world after it had been hidden for many centuries, often talks about the mind like a wild elephant. Oftentimes when we first start meditating, we have the classic “monkey mind” – the mind that is always running off the trail and finding tangent after tangent to play with. Distractible is putting it mildly.

When one sets an intention to train the mind, as in training a wild elephant, we have to remember that this is what the mind does – how it naturally behaves in its wild loose state and to have unlimited patience and compassion during the process of bringing the mind back to a focus point, in this case the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nostrils.

What strikes me about this practice is that while the natural inclination of the mind is to get loose and run wild (there is some gratifying feeling in letting our minds wander), my mind actually feels clearer and more healthier the more I train it. I can literally feel it becoming stronger, calmer, sharper and increasingly more intelligent.

By now this is heavily corroborated by science,

“What we found is that the longtime practitioners showed brain activation on a scale we have never seen before,” said Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the university’s new $10 million W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior. “Their mental practice is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance performance.” It demonstrates, he said, that the brain is capable of being trained and physically modified in ways few people can imagine.

Meditation Gives Brain a Charge

In his study, in which they hooked up monks with 10,000-50,000 hours of training (15-40 years of practice), they found never before seen gamma wave activity in a healthy person. The researchers concluded that “the movement of the waves through the brain was far better organized and coordinated than in the students” (who were training for 1 week and also took part in the study.)

Furthermore,

The monks who had spent the most years meditating had the highest levels of gamma waves, he added. This “dose response” — where higher levels of a drug or activity have greater effect than lower levels — is what researchers look for to assess cause and effect. In previous studies, mental activities such as focus, memory, learning and consciousness were associated with the kind of enhanced neural coordination found in the monks. The intense gamma waves found in the monks have also been associated with knitting together disparate brain circuits, and so are connected to higher mental activity and heightened awareness, as well.

Davidson’s research is consistent with his earlier work that pinpointed the left prefrontal cortex as a brain region associated with happiness and positive thoughts and emotions. Using functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI) on the meditating monks, Davidson found that their brain activity — as measured by the EEG — was especially high in this area.

Meditation Gives Brain A Charge
From the study, The effect of meditation on brain structure: cortical thickness mapping and diffusion tensor imaging.
They found that “Meditation training can enhance various cognitive processes, such as emotional regulation, executive control and attention, particularly sustained attention. Therefore, thinner cortical thickness of brain regions in meditators, including the lateral and medial parietal areas, may be associated with their enhanced cognitive functions through meditation training, such as improved attention and self-perception.”

The Trained Mind

Discovering that the trained mind has different activity and makes more efficient connections than an untrained mind is groundbreaking in my book. We can train the happiness centers in our brain through meditation. How revelatory!

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”

Britta Hölzel, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany. [source]

From my own experience, I’ve noticed increased overall wellness and contentment. Can this come from a healthier mind?

I have come to believe that it can and that our mind’s behavior patterns are very trainable. The way we think and the way we train ourselves to think change our perception of reality. We see things not as they are, but as we are – comes into play here.

Letting the Good In

This leads me to another article I came across today by Rick Hanson, PhD. I would highly recommend giving this PDF 5 minutes of your time.

from Taking in the Good

He writes,

  • Negative experience is registered immediately: helps survival.
  • Positive experiences generally have to be held in awareness for 5 – 10 – 20 seconds for them to register in emotional memory.
  • • Negative experiences trump positive ones: A single bad event with a dog is more memorable than a 1000 good times.

This tells us a lot about how our brain works – how it is wired for survival, yet letting our survival brain run things isn’t going to make for a happy brain. In the PDF I link above, he goes through some helpful techniques on training your brain to imprint with the positive experiences and talks about bringing them to mind more often in order to create a happy mental atmosphere, one in which we believe good things are going to happen to us. The law of attraction is at its peak when we start thinking like this.

Train your Brain for Happiness

So much of our seeking in life is in some way geared toward making ourselves happy and safe. In many ways, these simple and basic pursuits make the world run round and yet I would wager that it isn’t the mirror objects outside of us which can bring us happiness, but what is happening inside of us. That’s why this type of research and practice is so revolutionary because it shows us a way out.

We have the skills, we have the tools and they are free! Vipassana is FREE to anyone and each person who sits a 10 day course sits and eats and is lodged by the money people before them have given. If you are looking for a course to train your mind, I do recommend this one.

Though it is hard to train ourselves, the tools are abundantly available and they are as simple as sitting still, breathing and focusing. That’s a cause for celebration!

Have you experienced benefits from meditation practice or training your brain toward happiness? Please share in the comments!

Hold Fast to your Dreams: Inevitable Hypocrisy & Doing my Work in the World

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As you know, dear readers, my thoughts of late have often been drifting toward climate change. An offshoot of that is that I ask myself, I ask We the People, What can be done? This isn’t a new question for any of us. My generation has grown up with disastrous statistics of the earth’s slow and quicker forms of degradation, yet increasingly we are reaching a critical mass. Change doesn’t need to happen by 2050, it needs to happen by 2030.

When I started studying Permaculture and having divergent thoughts about society, politics as usual and culture, my dad and I butted heads a lot. I remember him often cajoling me that I was a hypocrite because I drove a car, I consumed, I used electricity based on coal. I was nothing but an idealist. For many years I let this voice guide me and I acted against it as a counterbalance. Fine, I said, I will try to be as pure as I can.

For a couple of years I didn’t own a car and when I lived in the outskirts of Los Angeles, I biked everywhere and when I couldn’t bike, I took public transit and had a small moped I buzzed around on. This worked, for a while, but the toll it took on my physical body was too great. I also ended up waiting a lot and it caused me to be inefficient with my time. The 12 mile commute on my moped to massage school was brutal in the pre dawn cold and I would show up with frozen hands – not ideal for massage! When I took the bus, the circuitous route and many bus changes meant that my commute took around 2 hours. Yet most of all, my body became tired. My lower back started to hurt frequently and I had signs of adrenal fatigue. I wasn’t a climate superhero, I was a human who was burning herself out. How could I balance my ideals with my situation?

Our system simply isn’t built (in most places) for people to lessen their use of fossil fuels. Yet for those of us who feel acutely the pain that comes as a biproduct of living with open eyes and seeing the exploitation and theft, what can we do? We witness Amazonian communities where big companies come in for oil and to deforest, raping women, destroying communities and polluting water and land – all for more oil, more timber. How can we continue along as if nothing has changed when we see increasingly that it is getting more and more difficult to extract oil from our earth’s cavities with greater environmental and social cost and pollution? To drive and continue guzzling gas seems heartless and cruel, yet most of us continue to do so out of necessity. Though we care, we are inevitable hypocrites.

Somewhere around this time, while on a soul searching bike tour where I visited many intentional communities of people seeking to live out a visionary sustainable shift, I met Ini. We hitch hiked around and finally bought a car that ran on veggie oil. This seemed like a great alternative, although far from a perfect solution. Emblazoned with the good vibes of driving on a waste resource, we watched YouTube videos of farmers growing fields of sunflowers and processing the oil themselves to make veggie oil or biodiesel. Hopeful and passionate, we wondered why this wasn’t a larger movement. News has always been out that “the government” (or some hidden large power) has the plans for incredibly fuel-efficient cars, but that they’re hiding it from the public to serve big oil interests. I envisioned fields of sunflowers grown for alternative fuel use and veggie oil stations popping up all over the United States.

As we went around looking for veggie oil we could strain and process to use in our car, I realized that most people don’t have the psychic or physical energy, let alone time, to endeavor such a thing. If it’s not immediately economical for people, it often doesn’t get done. Isn’t that so often the bottom line? Time, energy and money? In lieu of prioritizing ecological action, the necessity of capitalism entangles all of our actions. It’s how we are bread to think and behave. Usually we don’t choose jobs or lifestyles based on true passion, but because they’re economically stable or lucrative. We need to change the bottom line, but how? We all have to eat and wouldn’t a little security later in life be nice?

These days as the next guard of politicians are coming into office, we are faced with a wave of butting heads. Like my dad, a seasoned “old guard” of his generation, laughed in the face of my idealism, many “old timers” see the new politicians and their visions as ludicrous. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one who is daring to dream big and head up the Green New Deal. Shortly after it came out, she was heavily criticized for using car transportation (ostensibly instead of always using public transit- do they know how much longer that takes and how many stops simply aren’t on routes?) and because other aspects of her campaign weren’t ecofriendly. What a hypocrite, they said, She wants to implement a Green New Deal and she’s not even green!

Her rebuttal was key because it’s the world we all live in unless we want to be radical variants like the man who lives without using any money. She’s trying to get things done quickly and efficiently within the system she is trying to change. We all live within this system that causes pain and suffering, usually offloading it to developing countries by extracting their resources, polluting their environments and by damaging their communities. Out of sight out of mind. If you are sensitive like me, however, it doesn’t matter whether the pain is caused in your backyard or in a perpetually disenfranchised population states away like the Indigenous people of the United States who face many crimes at the hands of our government, not least of which is continually broken promises and treaties.

The fact is that we are all connected, we are interconnected, and pain and exploitation somewhere is connected to us all, especially if we are living comfortably as a result of another community’s exploitation.

With all of these thoughts lately, I’ve wondered if the actions of those people who are trying to make steps toward a more sustainable life really matter. Specifically, do my actions matter? As @geke so pointedly publishes each day, the military is shelling out billions of dollars per day and it’s depressing and frustrating to think of where that money is going.

In the face of a global war machine, polluting corporations impervious to checks and balances, and industrial “civilization” that eclipses individual action, do my actions even make a difference?

I brought this up with a friend who came over last night. She insisted that our actions do indeed matter and gave Paul Stamets as an example. Stamets is the leading researcher on mushrooms and how they can save the world. His research includes using mushrooms to purify contaminated water, clean up toxins in the environment, as well as heal the human body. His work is groundbreaking and inspiring and he is a driving force for good action in our world. He is someone we can look to and feel that our individual actions do matter, that by following our passions we can find the balms to heal the wounds of our world. After she said that, I realized that she was right. Individual change, paired with key policy shifts and pressure on large corporations to be held accountable for their pollution and actions, are where it all starts. We make up the whole, after all.

We live in a time when there is like a knee-jerk reaction to look up – up the ladder. We look to the big bodies to fix things or to stop things. It’s up to the government to shift it or this business or that organization. We are angry at Facebook for stealing our data, yet millions continue to use it and hand over our data each day. We want them to change, instead of taking a different approach to realize that each one of us makes up the We and we are a part of the Them.

It is disheartening that so many people are choosing rampant consumption rather than look at the impact of our human actions. I scream inside every time I read the statistic that Americans make up 5% of the world’s population but consume 24% of the world’s energy. I cannot change the minds of my fellow Americans. I can’t shake them until they see the destruction their consumption is causing and will continue to cause for eons. I can only change my actions.

 For too long we have chosen comfort over aligned sustainable action. I read statistics and I cry and cringe – about plastic pollution, which I wrote about the other day, and studies that say that all of the subjects tested had phthalates in their urine – phthalates that disrupt hormones, neuropathways, cause cancer, and more – and that these are in plastics which are passed around haphazardly (would you like paper or plastic?) and wrapping most of the consumer goods that we buy. I realize that this stuff is taking us over, we don’t know the side effects of it long term, and what we do know is horrific. We’re basically swimming in a sea of hormone shifting plastic, but this is an article I will write for another time.

You may ask why I continue to study these things if they make me scream, cry and cringe. I keep reading because I want to know where we’re at. I want to take an honest look at the state of things and act accordingly. My soul cannot live on this earth and just act like life is going on as normal because it’s not. We aren’t our parent’s generation or their parents who had an American Dream that didn’t already have a bazillion holes poked in it. Unlike them, because of the internet we can see the devastation our actions are causing world round. The American Dream is not a dream everyone can realize – on the way to every human getting it, resources would be long gone and the earth a catastrophic wasteland.

I’m here for a reason and that reason isn’t to blindly consume and make money at a job that contributes to the devastation of the earth. I am here to be an earth warrior, not a blind consumer.

How can I enjoy myself when I know that on Navajo reservations that have reaped the negative impacts of having coal plants and mines on their land (tapping already low aquifers, being one impact) thousands of families still don’t have running water or electricity in their homes. How can I live a comfortable life on the back of that inadvertent sacrifice the Navajo people have been forced to make? I don’t see the chasm between their experience and mine.

It is not out of sight out of mind for me, which is why we decided to make our homestead off grid and solar powered (yes I know solar power isn’t perfect and has its fair share of environmental harm.) But you see, that’s the catch 22 I mentioned at the beginning of this article. We cause harm while living within this system. As much as I’ve tried to divest from it in so many ways through growing my own food, building our buildings ourselves with as many natural materials sourced as locally as possible (because the modern building industry is a nasty unexamined business as well), heat with wood sustainably harvested from our forest, and chosen a life of voluntary simplicity thrifting or buying second hand most things, I am still a part of it. Yet that’s not a reason to call me a hypocrite or others like me, for example.

It is my sensitivity which causes me to heed the results of my actions and which inhibits me from living blindly.

While living within a destructive system, until the system is dismantled and rebuilt block by block, we cause harm as we seek to shift things. It’s inevitable. It doesn’t mean I should stop fighting for principles I believe in and living it out to the best of my ability, and it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t, that we shouldn’t start where we are and still speak about how we wish things could be.

If I light a vision in you, you carry that vision now and it evolves and morphs inside of your being in a unique way that only your life experiences and soul can make it. It manifests in a unique way through you. Never stop dreaming and never stop believing that the seeds of dreams within your person aren’t the exact things the world needs to hear from you! Imagine if our great visionaries stopped before they started – if Paul Stamets became discouraged and never carried on his research into the potentials of mushrooms. The world would never be blessed with the fruits of his vision. I believe the same goes for all of us.

The world has enough of the old curmudgeons who have fit their lives to go along with the status quo and who will shoot down every dream you have before it makes its way off the ground. While they may have some wisdom about how the current system works, that’s not the only information we’re interested in. Yes, it’s helpful to understand the current system so we know how to change it, but revolutions happen and will continue happening. I believe our age is ripe for an evolution of that sort.

My age group isn’t having children because we don’t see much hope for the future and we’ve heard statistics about overpopulation our entire lives. How can we add to this mess of humans taking over the earth? These are seeds planted in us and in a myriad of ways they are finding fertile soil, abundant water and sunshine and they’re making their way to the light of day. Perhaps in the end, human action and greed will cause a mass scale die off of all life on this planet. Yet where I stand, I cannot know how this will pan out and I am a hell of a lot more satisfied living out the passions and dreams which make life worth living than defeatedly following along with the status quo. How does it line go?

Hold fast to dreams 

For if dreams die Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly. 

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field Frozen with snow.

Langston Hughes
(source)

150 Years | 7 Generations Thinking: Inheriting Things From Strangers

Ecotrain, Homestead, inspiration

The other day I read that the 7 Generations thinking (originated by the Haudeneshone ie Iroquois Nation) is about a span of 150 years.

That’s really not that long, if you think about it. Those of us who are fortunate to have family records (or some freak down the line who pieced it all together -and I can say that because I’m likely taking on this role for my family), possibly even know the name, profession, or even the face in a rare still black and white photograph.

Were these people thinking about you?

In our day in age, we are very much geared toward the Individual- the rise, the fall, the accumulation and somewhat the passing on. What strikes me so much about the perspective of 7 generations thinking is that it requires a long term view of our actions. What are the ripples into our environments from my actions?

In a world with so many people, too, I think this Individualist thinking is also spurred on because we inherently believe our actions don’t really have that much of an effect.

We wait for others to do things because of this. Certainly I couldn’t be the one to … start a business on the Steem blockchain… make a sustainable invention… solve a puzzling world mystery, etc. These things are reserved for other people, people smarter, more attractive, wealthier, younger, etc. Yet when we start to think about how our actions ripple throughout the next 150 years, we realize that we do have a say about the shape of things.

Is an ancestor thinking about you right now?

I want to broaden the scope of an ancestor through writing this article. This subject has been on my mind a lot lately because Ini and I are talking with a local man about the possibility of taking on a position in carrying on his life’s work which involves a certain forest in our area. This person has been working tirelessly to create a sustainable livelihood in relation with this forest. The forest is too small to employ anyone to sustainably manage it (usually over 30,000 acres are needed unto that effect) and so this man had to get his creative thinking cap on.

On Balancing Wrong Action

Many people know that Corporations make Wrong Actions, especially regarding our ecosystems. Notoriously, driven by capitalistic bottom lines, extract, exploit and devastate more, while adding overwhelming amounts of pollution to the environment. They cut corners, dump toxic waste, and have leaky pipes in the Gulf and through the veined corridors through which they run in this country, which pollutes bodies of water all over the place.

The EPA and governmental organizations make a farce of stomping down this type of action, usually their pockets are lined with bucks, too. One such idea to balance this is the Cap & Trade System. The idea is totally new to me so I can’t write much on it, but essentially it allows those who produce a ton of Carbon into the atmosphere to pay people, essentially trading with them, who are sinking carbon back into the earth from the atmosphere.

What a Forest Does

Forests, of course, through the incredible respiration of trees, naturally act as carbon sinks. This is now scientifically documented at what rate this process happens and a large corporation, that has scientifically deduced the rate at which they are releasing carbon, can invest in a long term trade with a forest to balance out their negative effect.

Our friend has engaged the aforementioned forest in such a Cap & Trade deal, which will last for about 125 years. It is this role which we are talking with him about managing.

 

Could someone you don’t know right now be an ancestor to you?

The fact that this person, who we’ve only known for about 3 years, has worked for the past 25 years setting this up and devising a way to make a sustainable business in our local area – for someone who will come after him! Is incredible. He has essentially worked with the next 7 generations in mind not knowing who would take the work on for him!

Ini and I aren’t sure if we’ll have kids and while we have 1 niece and 1 nephew at this point in time, there’s no telling if a blood relative will want to pick up and carry on what we’ve created here. Fruit and nut trees will be abundant by the time they’re entering college, but who can say what their dreams will lead them to. We’ve often wondered who will carry on our dreams. Could we, like our friend, be preparing something for someone not even born yet who we’ll meet many years down the road?

 

If you can complete your dream in your lifetime, you’re not dreaming big enough.

Winona LaDuke recently crowdfunded a hemp farm that will empower Native American youth and in one of her emails she wrote the quote above. It has sat with me ever since. Am I dreaming big enough? Including a vision which propels and energizes the next 7 generations? Am I dreaming something which is viable or healthy for the next 150 years (and not only of humans, but the entire biosphere)?

Am I thinking of water, soil, income streams, food, shelter, and more? Though it may sound like a lot, I really don’t think it is. It is living in alignment with our true nature which is connected to everything. To be out of balance with this nature creates disharmony and though we may reap short term gains and excuse ourselves for trying to survive, how are we influencing the lives of our great great great grandchildren or even the children of a stranger who will show up one day and fit magically into the puzzle we have created.

I think our friend I mentioned above is the first person I have met who has dedicated so much of his life and toiled to create a sustainable job for someone he’s not even sure will come. He does it because it was his promise to the woman who donated the land into a land trust, which is happening more and more nationwide. How do we not only “preserve” these places, but also allow them to bring in salaries based on good livelihood as we talked about yesterday in our “Putting the Eco back Economics” post? Balancing the negative effects of greedy corporations is one such way.